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Master these two languages to succeed on the SAT/ACT
  • Calendar Sep 17, 2021
  • User Vincent Perry
  • Category In Uncategorized
  • Comments 0 Comments

Language: the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them that a community uses to communicate

Language fluency: the ability to comfortably use a language in a practical way to communicate and solve problems day to day

Language foundation: explicit knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar of a language

My experience in 18 years of SAT/ACT prep is that the skills you need to succeed on these tests are the skills that we need to succeed in school, college, and “real life”. Seeing my students succeed on the test, but also seeing them use what they are learning to succeed in their classes and in challenges they face outside of school, is what keeps me fired up about this work!

And of course, that’s a much more motivating message for students than “Spend a lot of time learning how to take a test, take it, and then never think about it or what you learned again.” The students who see the greatest level of improvement on the SAT/ACT (and anything really) are the ones that throw themselves into the work, and believe that the work they are doing is valuable rather than pointless.

So what are the two languages student need to master, and what are they currently missing?


Most high school English classes do not teach English mechanics in a systematic way. Students  may have had some instruction in elementary school, but middle and high school classes typically focus on reading stories, discussing them in class, and writing an essay every 4 weeks or so. The essays get handed back with grammar corrections, and the student is left to figure out on their own why the comma they used was unnecessary.

Students (and adults) get by with an intuitive understanding of English mechanics. We know when something “sounds” wrong, but we can’t explain why it is wrong.

Here is an example:

Give the calculator to he.

Is there something wrong with that sentence? What is it?

Almost everyone can answer, “It should be ‘him’ not ‘he’”

Great! But WHY should we use “him” rather than “he” here?

In my 18 years of SAT prep, I’ve yet to have a student able to answer that question clearly. Can yours?

How do our kids get 10+ years of education in the English language, and yet can’t explain seemingly basic grammar concepts?

We expect our students to read novels and textbooks, and write essays, but our students can’t answer very basic, fundamental questions about the building blocks of language: words and phrases!

This is like expecting a student to be able to write proofs without understanding what a theorem or postulate is.

It’s like a student saying “I know 2+2=4 because it sounds right, but I don’t really understand why” and expecting that student to be able to build a strong math foundation on that knowledge.

Most students have strong fluency in English but have weak foundations. They can use language day to day to understand and be understood in most simple situations, but they have a poor understanding of why and how different types of words, phrases, or punctuation are used and get into trouble when things get more complex.

The SAT/ACT tests students' understanding of the underlying principles of English grammar, and having a strong implicit understanding is not enough. The SAT will ask questions that students won’t be able to “sound out”, meaning they will need to rely on their explicit understanding of English mechanics.

The bad news: for most students, English mechanics is going to feel like a brand new subject. I've yet to meet the high school student who knows even basics like the parts of speech, identifying subjects and predicates, or how to use commas.

The good news: our high schoolers are more than capable of mastering the basics (and that’s all that’s needed for a significantly improved score.) Our program is based heavily on “A Writer’s Reference” (largely pulling from chapter B, P and D), focussing on parts of speech, punctuation, and the most common errors that the SAT/ACT test.

No matter what career path your son or daughter chooses, their mastery of the tools of the English language (words, phrases, and clauses) is going to make them more effective communicators. This is work that every student should be doing, regardless of whether or not they are taking the SAT/ACT. SAT/ACT prep is a great excuse to do it.


If a language is “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community”, wouldn’t it be fair to consider math a language? After all, don’t we use math words and symbols to communicate ideas? Doesn’t an equation communicate information just like a sentence does?

Students prepping for the SAT/ACT typically have the opposite problem in math that they do in English.

With English, students typically have strong fluency, but weak understanding of the English mechanics. They can form simple sentences that are usually correct, but they can’t explain why a more complex sentence is incorrect or how to fix it.

With math, typically students have a stronger foundation. They have a stronger grasp on math principles, and can explain how those principles work (at least relative to their grasp on English mechanics). But when it comes to using these principles to actually solve novel problems in the real world (or on the SAT/ACT) they struggle.

Here is an analogy:

Look at how students study (and how they are tested) in a foreign language class.

  • They memorize vocabulary.
  • They repeat model sentences.
  • They learn grammar rules.

They usually know a lot more about Spanish mechanics than English ones!

But ask a student who has taken 4+ years of Spanish to have a simple conversation with you. Most can’t. They’ve learned loads of facts about Spanish, but can’t actually use what they’ve learned to communicate effectively.
Same with math. Students learn algorithms, and memorize how to solve problems in their math classes. But give a student a real world challenge that can be solved using ratios, algebra, geometry, and they freeze. The same thing happens when they look at an SAT/ACT problem they don’t recognize. They aren’t fluent in mathematics.

The SAT/ACT is going to throw a wide variety of math problems at your son or daughter, many of which they have never seen. Success on the math portion of the test is going to come down to how comfortable and confident a student is at digging into a brand new problem.

The bad news: the way students learn and study math in school is not going to prepare them well for the SAT. They need to learn new skills and new mindsets to turn the math knowledge they've acquired over the year into a great math score

The good news: problem solving and creative thinking are skills that can be taught and practiced! And boy, does it feel good to actually use all these math skills you’ve learned over the years to do something novel and creative! Just like developing fluency in Spanish, it takes curiosity, diving in, and being OK with and learning from mistakes.

Your son or daughter may not be graphing hyperbolas on a day to day basis ten years from now. But they will need to learn how to use what they’ve learned (in school and out) to creatively solve new problems. SAT/ACT prep is a great opportunity to help them build those skills (and the spirit!)

Interested in learning more about arming your kids with the skills they need to succeed on the SAT/ACT and beyond? Call 858.551.2650 or email to schedule a free diagnostic exam and consultation.


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